Bob Baffert usually doesn’t give his jockeys much instruction before a race. After enduring Game On Dude’s agonizing loss in last year’s Pacific Classic, this time the Hall of Fame trainer had an explicit order for Martin Garcia.
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”When you turn for home, I don’t want anybody running you down,” Baffert told him.
The Dude abided, winning the $1 million Classic by 8-1/2 lengths at Del Mar on Sunday.
”That was goose-bump stuff,” said co-owner Joe Torre, the former Yankees and Dodgers manager and current Major League Baseball executive vice president.
It was the largest winning margin in the race’s 23-year history, bettering the 5-1/2 lengths that Skimming won by in 2001.
”He just made a huge statement and put on a show,” Baffert said.
The 6-year-old gelding ran 1-1/4 miles on the synthetic surface in 2:00.69 while extending his winning streak to six races. Game On Dude captured California’s richest race after two previous failures, having finished second last year and fourth in 2011 on the Polytrack surface that wasn’t much to his liking.
Game On Dude had been working well over the surface in the mornings under Garcia.
”He kept telling me he’s a different horse this year. He’s getting over it well,” Baffert said. ”He was doing everything so smoothly. I loved how he was in the paddock; he was keen, but not too keen.
”I told Martin, `You have the fastest horse and don’t be afraid to get bold with him.”
Game On Dude broke from the 11th post in the 13-horse field, and Garcia maneuvered him to the lead in the first turn in front of the announced crowd of 29,319.
Watching from the paddock instead of his usual box seat, Baffert told wife Jill, ”There are no excuses today.”
Game On Dude didn’t need any. He built his lead through the stretch, leaving a blanket of horses to vie for second place. The victory, worth $600,000, increased the gelding’s earnings to $5,602,158, making him the richest active horse in North America.
”I was jumpy as all get-out,” Torre said. ”I can’t tell you how exciting it was to watch him.”
Game On Dude paid $5.40 as the 8-5 favorite in the 13-horse field. He joined Lava Man in 2006 as the only horses to sweep the state’s big three races — the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic — in the same year.
”My respects to Game On Dude,” said Leandro Mora, assistant to Doug O’Neill, who trained Lava Man. ”He’s the new Lava Man of the era.”
Baffert earned his fourth victory in the Classic, leaving him second to Bobby Frankel’s record of six wins.
Trainer John Sadler went 2-3 with Kettle Corn and You Know I Know, who was a nose behind his stablemate.
Garcia was a late replacement for Joel Rosario, who was set to ride Game On Dude until he broke his foot in a spill at Saratoga on Friday. Rosario was supposed to ride in all three stakes at Del Mar on Sunday; instead he is expected to be out for six weeks. Garcia became available after Baffert decided to scratch his other entry, Liaison.
”They wanted me to be on the rail, and that’s exactly how my horse likes to run,” Garcia said. ”He broke really great.”
Rosario was a replacement himself, after Game On Dude’s regular jockey Mike Smith opted to ride Royal Delta at Saratoga on Sunday. Smith won the Personal Ensign.
Baffert isn’t worried about having to make another jockey decision going into the Breeders’ Cup, where Game On Dude will be pointed to in November. The gelding earned an automatic berth in the $5 million Classic because of his win Sunday, and the $100,000 entry fee will be paid if he starts.
”I really think down deep that Royal Delta, they might run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” he said.
A year ago, Baffert was crushed after watching Game On Dude get overtaken in the stretch by Dullahan in a half-length defeat. Chantal Sutherland was aboard Game On Dude and she dropped her left rein late in the race after taking the lead approaching the stretch turn.
”It was very emotional for me,” Baffert said about this year’s result. ”For what we went through last year, getting beat, it was just a tough loss.”
Baffert later replaced Sutherland as the horse’s regular rider with Rafael Bejarano, and her business eventually slowed before she retired late last year. On Sunday, Sutherland was fifth aboard Holding Glory while riding under her married name of Kruse after resuming her career earlier this year.
Torre couldn’t help but think of late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who as a horse breeder and owner never achieved his long-held goal of winning the Kentucky Derby.
”That was the one thing that would he would have given one of his arms for,” Torre said.
In other Del Mar stakes:
• Fed Biz won the $250,000 Pat O’Brien Stakes, rallying in the middle of the track to beat 4-5 favorite Goldencents by a length. Ridden by Martin Garcia, Fed Biz ($17.60) ran seven furlongs in a track record time of 1:21.12, snapping a five-race skid. Baffert won the race for the seventh time and fifth year in a row. Fed Biz earned an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita on Nov. 2.
• Defending champion Obviously won the $200,000 Del Mar Mile by a half-length over He Be Fire N Ice. Ridden by Joe Talamo, Obviously ran one mile on the turf in 1:32.64 and paid $2.60 as the 1-5 favorite.